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Mountain Home Magazine

Thank You, Mr. Stahler!

Nov 01, 2021 08:00AM ● By Carol Myers Cacchione

Spectacular accomplishments define legends. Think George Washington, the Founding Father of our country. Consider Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and Neil Armstrong, the first human being to leave his footprints on the moon. Now add Brian Stahler to that list.

Wait, what—? Does a small-town, high school English teacher have the right stuff to be considered a legend? Ask any student who attended Wellsboro Senior High School from 1963 through 1997 which teacher they revere most. The likely answer—Mr. Stahler. That’s a pretty astonishing accomplishment in anyone’s book.

Brian Stahler was no mere Mr. Nice Guy in front of the blackboard. He earned cred from his students the hard way. His reputation as a no-nonsense taskmaster and homework assigner preceded him. Those of us, myself included, who had older siblings, learned from them how demanding a teacher he was. Heaven forbid our sisters or brothers performed poorly in any of his classes! We’d have to work all that much harder to make up for the deficit and gain his respect.

But with diligence came a lifetime’s useful knowledge. We know beyond doubt, for example, up is different from down—not different than. ”Different from, different from, different from from FROM, not different than!” It’s the way Mr. Stahler said it and drummed it into our heads so we’d remember it. We use there and their, its and it’s, who’s, whose, and whom correctly in sentences. We keep our well-thumbed and annotated copies of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style on our bookshelves within easy reach, so we can refer to the slim volume for correct grammatical usage and sentence construction whenever we put pen to paper or fingers to keys.

We will be forever incapable of reading a paragraph without looking for run-on sentences, dangling participles, split infinitives, and trite phrases. We can recite Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy on demand. We understand what that scarlet letter A represented on Hester Prynne’s dress, and we can—at least, hypothetically—harpoon a whale, strip it of its blubber, and render it into lamp oil from having read Moby-Dick. We earned our grammatical chops and our literary bragging rights, thanks to Mr. Stahler. No small feat, and we’re all inordinately proud of having been his students.

Amy Walsh Wilson took both junior and senior English literature classes from him in the mid-1970s. “Mr. Stahler was a very demanding teacher, but in a good way. A grade of ‘B’ from him was like an ‘A’ from anyone else. You had to rise to his level or sink, and he didn’t accept much sinking,” she says. She spent twenty career years in the United States Air Force, ten years raising her daughter, then another nine years as an administrative support technician for the Twelfth Flying Training Wing in San Antonio, Texas.

“Mr. Stahler was, hands down, the best teacher I ever had, even through college and graduate school,” Amy says. “He taught me how to write, and since both my jobs required lots of editing, I wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as I was.”

“He held you to a higher standard,” says Tony Driebelbies, class of ’83. He is particularly appreciative of Mr. Stahler’s organization in the classroom. Tony understood the feedback and critiques Mr. Stahler gave were meant in a good way to improve students’ reading, writing, and comprehension skills.

Tony was a student in Mr. Stahler’s eleventh grade English and advanced composition classes. He was awed by Mr. Stahler’s passion for teaching. “He drew you into the writings of Shakespeare and brought the subject to life.” Most of all, Tony says, he learned perseverance from Mr. Stahler, who motivated him to work hard and make steady improvements that benefited him in his college years and beyond.

Tony became a special education instructor, teaching English to students with learning disabilities, and is currently working as a school counselor. “There is no doubt that the skills and work ethic that Mr. Stahler instilled in me as a high school student gave me the confidence and inspiration to be successful in college and in my career as an educator,” he says.

Sally Kentch took speech and English lit classes from him in 1971. “Mr. Stahler respected all students and exhibited enthusiasm for his subject,” she notes. “He wanted us to learn, he enjoyed teaching, and he had charisma.”

She shares the experience she had when Mr. Stahler assigned her a speech about the pros of tobacco use. She did not agree with that point of view, and was uncertain how to craft an effective argument. “Mr. Stahler encouraged us to make our presentations as creative as possible, even to the point of taking risks. I chewed tobacco so I could speak to the experience.” The lessons she learned about public speaking and risk-taking in Mr. Stahler’s classes served her well in her career as a social worker and an environmental educator, she concludes.

Mr. Stahler’s work ethic is one of the first things that came to mind for Dorothy Hemenway Carter. She admits she didn’t do homework in high school for every teacher, sometimes because she didn’t see the point, and sometimes because she didn’t appreciate the teacher. “But for Mr. Stahler, I did it,” she says now. “Not because he said anything to those who didn’t, but the look he gave when he went around to collect homework and it wasn’t done was enough to motivate me. I didn’t want my peers to see him look at me like that.”

She loved reading, and he captivated her interest with his often weighty and demanding reading lists. Each summer she read the books he assigned for his advanced classes. Ms. Carter became a public school English teacher. “I loved my job,” she says, “and yes, Mr. Stahler was my role model. I wanted to be for my students what he had been for me. I wanted to expect my students to work, as he did—and my students did work. I am so fortunate to have had Mr. Stahler as a teacher.”

Although she would not have termed herself a stellar high school student, she shone brightly in college, going on to achieve an MFA in writing and graduating with high honors. “Brian Stahler enriched my life,” Dorothy says.

According to Rick Dale, “Mr. Stahler’s passion combined with his unorthodox teaching techniques made learning memorable. I learned how to write, pure and simple. When I took first year English composition in college, I found the writing assignments so basic, I’d complete them way before anyone else. The teacher looked at what I’d written and excused me from taking the remainder of the course.”

Rick became a teacher himself, and attained the rank of tenured associate professor of special education at the University of Maine in Farmington. “I learned from Brian how to be passionate in front of the classroom, to use my voice for emphasis, and not to be afraid to set high expectations for myself or for others,” he says. He looks back to the many long evenings during high school when he spent hours on homework just for Mr. Stahler’s class. “At the time, I didn’t appreciate his rigor, but now I do. And I’ve told him so.” Rick recommends thanking teachers who have had a big influence on one’s life.

Terry Resotko Galler, class of ’81, created a Facebook group page in 2011 for just that purpose. Its name, appropriately, is “Thank you, Mr. Stahler.” By way of introducing her page, she writes, “It is rare to find such a dedicated teacher that continued to inspire students for more than thirty years. Mr. Stahler blessed his students in a small, rural Pennsylvania town with his love of great literature and well-crafted writing...He gave us the skills to express ourselves in the world and make our own mark. And in the process, he has impacted not only our lives, but the lives of countless others as well.”

Terry eloquently stated what Mr. Stahler’s former students and admirers have long known—he’s a legend in his own time. The stories of his teaching skills are being passed down to the next and future generations, in true legendary fashion. For instance, Galler recalls her amazement at watching her teacher seemingly morph into the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as he recited the “Double, double, toil and trouble” lines for her class. “I know many of us have shared these stories with our children, much to their delight,” she says. As for Mr. Stahler’s humble reaction to the Facebook page, he says simply, “I’m honored.” The posts and shares on Terry’s page honoring Mr. Stahler have slowed. Not because his students ran out of words to praise him, but because Mr. Stahler started his own eponymous Facebook page. Here, he continues to be showered with accolades and heartfelt thanks.

Every legend has a compelling backstory. While Mr. Stahler didn’t chop down a cherry tree or split logs for fence rails as a boy, he did grow up during the early 1940s in a household in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country where English was not the spoken or written language. He was a menopause baby. Both his parents were in their fifties when he was born, and his three siblings were already adults. His father was a blacksmith and a dry goods store owner in New Ringgold, in Schuylkill County. The family home, a double house, was tucked alongside the store in the center of the town. Everyone spoke Pennsylvania Dutch in his home and in the store except young Brian.

His sister Evelyn, largely responsible for caring for him while their parents worked in the store, lived in the other half of the double house. She insisted he speak English. “She didn’t want me to be at a disadvantage when I started school,” Mr. Stahler explains. “I could understand Dutch, because all the people in the store would speak it with Dad. But I was never allowed to speak it.” He started waiting on customers when he was barely tall enough to see over the counter.

A precocious child, he began reading at age three. The first book he read on his own, The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, was given to him by his older sister. “LaRue handed it to me and said she thought I’d like it. She told me to write down any word I didn’t understand and she’d help me with it. I read it in a night and a day. I loved that book,” Mr. Stahler says. “It started my passion for reading.”

Perhaps reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the second grade sparked his love for chemistry, which he discovered in high school. He was also a standout in German classes. It was an easier subject for him than English. His brother John, twenty-two years his senior and an accomplished surgeon, encouraged him to go to medical school. But Brian wanted to teach.

Given a choice between the two state colleges at the time which offered majors in both chemistry and German—Millersville and Mansfield—he chose Mansfield because it was farther away from home.

He met the fellow who was destined to become his best friend and the best man at his wedding within a quarter hour of his arrival on campus. That was Bill Davis. His room was across the corridor from Brian’s in the South Hall men’s dormitory. On their way to North Hall to have dinner, Brian and Bill ran into Anne Steehler, a stunning redhead in a black dress, also on her way to the dining hall. It was love at first sight. “I called home that night and told my sister Evelyn I’d met the woman I was going to marry,” Mr. Stahler said. True to his prediction, they married right after graduation.

Chemistry and its math requirements didn’t agree with Mr. Stahler in his freshman year of college. Surprising everyone, he switched his majors to English and German. English had been his hardest subject in grade school, so he took it on as a challenge. German was his fallback, in case his English studies didn’t pan out. Fortunately, they did.

When it came to his student teaching requirement, “I was really lucky,” he says gratefully. “I was assigned to Betty Morrow at the Wellsboro Junior High School. Talk about winning the lottery!”

He remembers Betty as the best teaching mentor he could have. Among her lasting words of wisdom was the advice, “You have to be as sharp in your last class of the day as you are in your first class.” This and other suggestions for effective teaching stuck with him throughout his teaching career.

Mr. Stahler was hired in 1963 to teach high school English in the Wellsboro Area School District. He briefly flirted with the idea of teaching at the college level after receiving his master’s degree from Penn State in the early 1970s, but he remained at his post in Wellsboro until retiring in 1997. Along the way, he and his wife Anne, an elementary school teacher, purchased a two acre lot on the outskirts of Mansfield, built a house on it, planted a lot of trees, and had two sons, Rick and Terry. The trees and their sons grew up together. The boys are now in their fifties.

Anne died on January 6, 2007, from cancer. Mr. Stahler said he never expected a monumental event to share that fateful date until the Capitol insurrection occurred on January 6, 2021. Still, the most unforgettable event of his own life was the day he met Anne. He’s already pre-planned his own funeral, written his obituary, and had his name carved into the headstone he’ll share with her. All that’s missing is the final date.

Not to worry. Mr. Stahler’s not ready to check out yet. Reading Shakespeare, and anything nonfiction about the Elizabethan and Victorian ages, keeps him going. “I’m addicted to Richard III,” he says. “I could read it over and over. Also, any books by Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. Les Miserables was a terrific book, and a wonderful Broadway play!”

When time permitted, he would take his AP English class students to New York City to see it on stage after they studied it in class. Musical theater and bus trips have since become pleasant pastimes. His long-haired, piebald dachshund, Tyson, is the current love of his life. Tyson lives up to his name in sheer bravado, if not in stature. He’s protective of his human dad and never allows Mr. Stahler out of his sight for long.

Every year when September appears on the calendar and the school buses start rolling, Mr. Stahler says he feels a twinge of sadness. “I’d love to be back teaching. I miss every minute of it,” he admits. His day-to-day health and advancing age, however, preclude it. He knows realistically he might be unable to withstand the rigors of the classroom. But he can always dream. “I will never believe I could have loved another job as much as I have loved teaching.”

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